Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but according to a new lawsuit, singer Rick Astley disagrees.
Astley filed a lawsuit Thursday in Los Angeles court claiming that while Yung Gravy and his collaborators secured rights to re-record the melody and lyrics of some of his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” for their track “Betty (Get Money),” they recorded it too close to the original and infringed on his “right of publicity” by “flagrantly impersonat[ing]” Astley’s voice.
Recreating the magic of older songs in new hits is not unique to “Betty (Get Money).” It’s common for artists to secure the rights to use the underlying musical work, like Gravy’s team did with “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and re-record portions of the song’s melody, lyrics and more for use in a new song, a process called “interpolation.” Sometimes, this ends up sounding incredibly similar sounding to the original recording, and other times, the team will put its own spin on the old track.
By opting for an interpolation rather than a true sample, teams avoid the tedious and costly process of securing the rights to the original recording as well, a separate right from that of the musical work. With interpolations, only the songwriters and publishers involved in writing the song have to approve of the new use of their song, not the singer. Interpolations also have the added bonus of providing producers with more flexibility and creativity. But now Astley’s lawsuit has music executives questioning if it could “open the floodgates” to litigation or at least tamp down the practice.
To the average listener, the “Betty (Get Money)” intro hinges on what sounds like a direct sample of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” But, as Gravy told Billboard months ago, he and his collaborators instead “basically remade the whole song,” in the studio. “[We] had a different singer and instruments, but it was all really close because it makes it easier legally,” he said.
Similarly, “I Like It” by Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin is widely believed to include a sample of of “I Like It Like That (A Mi Me Gusta Asi)” by Pete Rodriguez, but the iconic-sounding recording is also a dupe. In an interview with The Verge, the song’s engineer, Leslie Brathwaite, explained that, “a lot of people think that’s the actual sample, but it was actually replayed. Craig [Kallman, chairman of Atlantic Records and one of the track’s producers] hired people to replay every aspect of that sample, and it turned out to be like, 60 tracks worth of stuff… because they didn’t want to clear the sample.”
Nick “Popnick” Seeley, the producer who recreated Rick Astley’s voice for “Betty (Get Money),” told Billboard in a previous interview that he was also part of the replay process for “I Like It” by Cardi B, along with “Dirty Iyanna” by Youngboy Never Broke Again (which replays “Dirty Diana” by Michael Jackson). “I have a knack for vintage stuff… this is a really cool way for me to participate in what’s going on in pop music right now,” he said in the past interview. (Seeley is named alongside Gravy, fellow collaborators Dillon Francis and David “dwilly” Wilson, and Republic Records as defendants in the lawsuit. He declined Billboard’s request for comment.)
Danielle Middleton, senior director of producer/songwriter management firm Page 1 and former A&R at Sony Music Publishing, notes that sampling and interpolation is bigger than ever. “Nostalgia is huge right now,” she says. With songs like “First Class” by Jack Harlow (which features a sample of “Glamorous” by Fergie), “I’m Good (Blue)” by David Guetta and Bebe Rexha (which interpolates “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, Gabry Ponte), “Big Energy” by Latto (which borrows from “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club, which is also featured in “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey) and more dominating the Hot 100 in recent years, many artists are looking to quickly jump onto the trend by flipping familiar tunes into something new.
Music attorney Todd Rubenstein wagers that most music creators have likely not considered there could be any legal risk in creating closely imitated interpolations. Producer Marc “Fresh2Def” Soto, half of duo ClickNPress and has worked with J. Cole, Queen Naija, and Alessia Cara, says music execs have often encouraged him to convert samples into interpolations. “A record label will be like, ‘Hey we can’t get the clearance for the sample, but we can get an interpolation, would you be able to replay XYZ thing?’ I’ve been through that on several records with different labels.”
While Soto explains it’s not unheard of for a producer to strive for an exact dupe, far more commonly, he says, producers will make small changes to create distinction. Soto also says an exact imitation is often nearly impossible, anyway. Without access to the same studios and equipment as the creators of a track made decades ago did, re-recordings usually sound different from the original track, even if the attempt was to imitate. It’s most common to hear imitations of guitar parts, drum loops and other instrumentals. Vocals are more rare.
One publishing executive, who spoke to Billboard on the condition of anonymity, says they feel switching out a sample for a close interpolation is not just used to speed up licensing and save money. It’s also incredibly common for “creative reasons,” allowing the producers to control the parameters and tone of each individual element of the song.
In a previous story with Billboard, Primary Wave, the company that owns the rights to “Never Gonna Give You Up” songwriter Pete Waterman’s catalog, explained that the creation of “Betty (Get Money)” was part of a strategy the company has been working on for the past few years. In hopes of boosting the popularity and earnings of their catalog, the team will encourage artists and producers to interpolate or sample from songs they hold some or all rights to.
So far, the technique has been quite successful for Primary Wave. In addition to “Betty (Get Money),” this strategy has produced songs like “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Channel Tres (which sampled Teddy Pendergrass’s “The More I Get The More I Want”), “Thought It Was” by Iann Dior and Machine Gun Kelly (which interpolated the melody of Semisonic’s “Closing Time”) and “What a Night” by Flo Rida (which borrowed from Frankie Valli’s “Oh What A Night”). Primary Wave was not named in this lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Astley’s lawyer claims the singer has been “looking to collaborate with another artist and/or producer to create something new with his voice from ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’,” but because of the “nearly indistinguishable” imitation of Astley in “Betty (Get Money),” his opportunities to do this have been “obliterated.”
While Milk & Honey founder Lucas Keller says the popularity of Yung Gravy’s tune with such a prominent interpolation of “Never Gonna Give You Up” may hinder opportunities for a major sample placement for Astley’s original tune in the short term, the other publishing executive adds that they believe the opposite is true long-term. “If you’d look at James Brown or Parliament Funkadelic or any number of people that are often sampled, I feel like statistically, the more your work is used, it means you’re more likely to get sampled again.”
As to the lawsuit, Keller, who manages a number of top producers, says it “could set creators back.” The publishing executive agrees, arguing the case could scare creators and hinder creativity in sampling, covering and interpolating.
Soto says this would not be the first time a lawsuit affected producers in recent years, citing the controversial Blurred Lines trial, which claimed the Hot 100-topping hit of that name by Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. plagiarized the composition “Got To Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye because some felt it centered on similar feels of the two songs — perhaps widening what elements are protected under copyright law. The same lawyer who represented the Gaye family in that trial, Richard Busch, is representing Astley in his lawsuit. With this case, Soto adds, “We might get to a place where things start to feel like, ‘Why am I interpolating anyways when I might get sued?’”
Even if Astley and Gravy settle out of court, Rubenstein believes we’re likely “going to see other lawsuits off the back of this lawsuit” from artists who feel emboldened to fight imitations or similar-sounding interpolations of their voices in songs they were not a part of. He says, “I could see older artists that had this happen to them in the past realize, ‘Hey, I have the same claim.’”
Busch, Republic Records, Primary Wave, and Gravy did not respond to Billboard‘s request for comment.
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